Relationships and strategic planning are two critical elements in a fleet manager’s toolbox to contend with uncertainties in today’s business world, maintains 35-year fleet veteran Charlie Stevenson.
Good relationships with OEMs and vendors combined with forward-looking strategies will help respond to difficulties posed by a waning global pandemic, supply chain hurdles, doubtful parts resources, and other obstacles besetting corporate operations.
Charlie Stevenson is vice president of fleet for Essential Utilities, one of the largest U.S. water, wastewater, and natural gas providers, under the Aqua and Peoples brands. He oversees fleet operations across a 10-state footprint and is responsible for more than 2,600 vehicles and 1,100 pieces of mechanical equipment. Most of the fleet’s vehicles are used in the field, often in rough terrain.
The Pennsylvania-based Essential Utilities fleet comprises primarily trucks and service GM and Ford vehicles. Over his tenure, Stevenson has worked to develop and maintain lasting – “multiple year” – relationships with a network of dealerships, getting to know the dealers and their businesses personally.
He tells them, “We know we could change dealers, but you’ve been loyal to us, and we will remain loyal to you.”
As a result, says Stevenson, when some dealers have been selling for over MSRP during recent times, “Our good vendors and partners have honored our price agreements and commitments.”
To build business partnerships, Stevenson advises fleet managers “to talk to peers. Attend industry and fleet association events. Which vendors, dealers, or suppliers do colleagues suggest or recommend?”
To evaluate dealer or vendor relationships, Stevenson assesses their pricing and services: “Are their prices fair? Is their customer service above average?” Furthermore, “Are they willing to go the extra mile?”
Due diligence even with long-time partners requires regular accountability, so Stevenson recommends issuing an RFP for vendors every three to five years.
Strategize & Prioritize
Stevenson has turned to other tactics to face recent industry challenges: flexibility, strategic planning, and prioritizing. The three approaches are particularly important in balancing budgets often upended by unforeseen events and forces.
For example, Stevenson points to supply chain difficulties and budget constraints that have led to prioritizing vehicle replacements.
“If I only get 30 vehicles because of supply chain realities when I need 60, I have to take a hard look at which 30 are really not going to make it, based on service history and usage, and replace those,” he says. “It’s a gamble and sometimes it doesn’t work. But choices must be made.”
To manage replacement lead time, Stevenson now looks at a two-year period for specialty vehicles. Delivery on vehicle bodies that had taken 16-18 weeks now require eight months’ wait.
Still more challenges include rising steel prices and soaring fuel spend – current fuel costs are 10-15% over Stevenson’s budget forecasts.
As he contends with the “blip in operation costs,” Stevenson is adjusting for the increase in future budgets.
“I am now forecasting over the next calendar years to balance budgets and ensure adequate supplies,” he says. “Be flexible, be willing to change according to circumstances, especially the unexpected,” says the fleet veteran.
“Stay on top of what’s happening in the industry and in the world, and how events and developments will impact your organization,” Stevenson advises. “Examine all budget areas each calendar year to uncover what can be trimmed.”
To survive an uncertain fleet world, he emphasizes, “develop business relationships, plan strategically into the future, manage over longer terms, and where there is less, prioritize.”